Unhappy Thoughts: Gary Indiana Gets Personal In New Memoir

ICanGiveYouAnythingButLove_cover“Reality is, for the most part, a great disappointment,” Gary Indiana writes in his new memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love (Rizzoli Ex Libris). This epiphany comes when Indiana is flipping through a book of Annie Leibovitz’s photography and looking at images of the corpse of Susan Sontag, Indiana’s friend and contemporary. As he looks at the pictures, he says he’s “grateful for a friend whose appetite for reading even was larger than [his] own,” but also describes her as “exasperating, often cruel.” Finally, after meditating on his friendship with her, he discovers why he liked her so much. She took reality’s great disappointment “as a personal insult.” So does Indiana.

Throughout his memoir, Indiana launches diatribes—some as short as a sentence or two, others as long as an entire chapter—against his mother and father (“a swamp of human wreckage tainted by alcohol”), David Lynch (“I disliked [him] immensely”), Charles Bukowski (“his books are—there’s no polite way of saying it—shit”), Ernest Hemingway (“a malicious, unscrupulous, pig-headed bully”), several former friends (“a seriously destructive person,” he says of one), Los Angeles (“a city of false starts”), Cuba (“a feeling of evil spreading everywhere”), and, most importantly, himself. “I’m almost sixty-five,” he says of himself in the books epilogue, “I still have practically nothing of my own, and could very well end up on the same trash heap where most old people in America get tossed, regardless of whatever ‘cultural capital’ I’ve accumulated.” It does not make for friendly reading, but what carries the book is Indiana’s humanity—he may not be sweet, but he is never soulless. I find it telling that Indiana dedicates the book to his friend of 30 years Tracey Emin, whose explicitly sexual art is angry, shocking, and above all weirdly compassionate.

For people familiar with Indiana’s writing, that angst won’t be surprising. Many of his novels feature disillusioned unnamed narrators who wander the streets of downtown Manhattan and mull over the death they see around them. Their New York is not one of possibility and bright lights, but instead, a city of loneliness and impending disaster. Indiana’s New Yorkers are annoying, but they have every right to be. They’re mean because they’re alienated, and they’re alienated because they, like Indiana, are marginalized by the status quo.

Memoirs are usually about overcoming that kind of thing. Indiana’s is not. Many of his books are only now coming back into print, courtesy of the small press Semiotext(e), after being neglected for too long. His art, though curated into last year’s Whitney Biennial, remains largely unknown. His career, he writes in the book’s epilogue, has hardly been “an unmitigated triumph over adversity.”

I Can Give You Anything But Love begins at the end, with a sixty-something Indiana in warm, sunny, unhappy Cuba, where he has lived on and off for the past 15 years. “Cuba hasn’t been part of the modern world in a long time, marooned in a Marxist-Leninist time warp of sluggish totalitarianism,” Indiana writes as an introduction to the country. Only after he unromantically beds Abdul, a 20-year-old Cuban with an attitude, does Indiana get to his traumatic childhood. Even then Indiana leaves out the details one might expect from a memoir. There is none of the usual information, like the fact that Indiana was born in Derry, New Hampshire, in 1950, or the names of his parents, or how old Indiana is in the first memories he presents in the book.

I Can Give You Anything But Love is more experimental, leaping between the present and the distant past—and cutting out most of the time between the two. Indiana only writes about the first three decades of his life, which means that he completely leaves out the part where he became an art critic for the Village Voice from 1985 to 1987. (He looks down on people who know him only for his art criticism, describing his Village Voice writing as “a bunch of yellowing newspaper columns I never republished and haven’t cared about for a second since writing them a quarter century ago.”) Indiana doesn’t mention writing his first novel, Horse Crazy, in 1989. Only in the memoir’s final pages does Indiana even describe leaving Los Angeles for New York, in 1978.

What Indiana does write about, however, is a bleak overview of his early years and a possible explanation for his worldview. When Indiana was a child, his father gambled and drank constantly while his mother looked the other way. When he was a boy, for no apparent reason two lifeguards at a lake tied him up and left him adrift alone on a raft. Years later, as a teenager, he passionlessly gave blow jobs to his schoolmates. Then, after having experienced student counterculture at UC Berkeley and subsequently dropping out, he lost his virginity, at age 19, as part of what was more or less a prostitution deal. That same year, he was raped by a member of the Hells Angel at a party. He slid into depression. “There is a threshold of self-neglect I can’t cross without getting locked up,” he writes. “I have to carefully gauge how much unhappiness I can manage, as I seem to be a glutton for it, and still function.”

A lot of Indiana’s writing is about breakdowns—of systems, of minds, of relationships, or law and order itself. In Horse Crazy, it’s New York gay culture coming apart as the AIDS crisis changes everything people thought they knew about love and sex. Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard appear in his writing about art and film, tearing apart the values of the ’60s. Indiana’s crime trilogy—which includes the novels Depraved Indifference (based on Sante Klimes, who murdered two people with the help of her son) and Resentment, which Indiana wrote after covering the trial of the Menendez brothers, as well as the quasi-journalistic Three Month Fever, about Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace’s killer—are about the breakdown of civilization itself at the end of the 20th century. In I Can Give You Anything But Love Indiana looks inward, documenting a kind of perpetual personal breakdown of memory. It is perhaps his most stylized book—its time jumps, unconventional sentence structures, and frequent digressions illustrating a narrator trying and failing to remember his past.

As the book progresses, it becomes less linear and more episodic. Everything begins to blur until one night, in 1978, after drinking too much and taking a drive on a Los Angeles freeway, Indiana quite literally hits a wall. His car tumbles off the road, and, much to his own surprise, he climbs out alive. He knows something has to give.

As the book moves from the ’60s, through the ’70s, and toward the ’80s, the world changes along with Indiana. At a screening of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, a friend named Ferd tells Indiana, “There aren’t going to be any more highs.” To which Indiana writes: “In that remarkable moment, a switch was thrown in my brain. I suddenly knew that I had expected, for years, the bleak atmosphere of the 1970s to blow away one sunny day, and the good good times of the 1960s to roll in… Deluded as Ferd often was, I recognized that he’d said something true.”

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